How House of the Dragon Is Approaching the Game of Thrones Ending Backlash
Exclusive: House of the Dragon co-creator Ryan Condal reflects on the Game of Thrones finale and how the TV landscape has changed.
The series finale of Game of Thrones remains a milestone in television history. During a decade where the industry pivoted in a massive way toward streaming, HBO’s flagship series about fire and blood remained unbowed, unbroken, and unbent. Whereas most networks were losing viewership week to week, and year to year, Game of Thrones’ audience grew each season, and by its final year nearly each episode. This all culminated with “The Iron Throne,” the season 8 finale that was watched by 19 million people in the U.S. during its Sunday night premiere. Obviously that number grew when global and DVR audiences were taken into account in the weeks to come.
That’s a lot of folks tuning in for a series that had the unenviable task of creating an ending most audiences would enjoy after spending nine years speculating on it—or decades in the case of George R.R. Martin’s most loyal readers. Nonetheless, according to a THR/Morning Consult poll, 58 percent of audiences were at least somewhat satisfied by the Game of Thrones finale.
If you looked online though, you’d never know it. The internet is inundated with essays, hot takes, and YouTube videos built on the assumption that not only did Game of Thrones end poorly, but that it somehow invalidated or “ruined” the entire previous nine years of excitement and near universal adulation that preceded it. Nearly two million people have even signed a change.org petition demanding HBO remake Game of Thrones’ final season to fans’ specifications, including without showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who the petition’s author dubbed “woefully incompetent.” There’s a striking irony to that last bit since Benioff and Weiss wrote most of the episodes (and produced all the rest) for a series that the petition’s signatories clearly enjoyed for at least seven seasons.
Yet that vocal online chatter lingers, even three years later and on the eve of HBO launching its first Game of Thrones spinoff series: House of the Dragon. The new show is one that was co-created by both George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal, the latter of whom is also co-showrunning the series with director Miguel Sapochnik, helmer of such iconic Game of Thrones episodes as “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome.” And according to Condal, who spoke with Den of Geek for an exclusive feature in the latest issue of our magazine, House of the Dragon is a premise Martin first pitched to HBO years before Game of Thrones ended—and before eventually also suggesting his longtime friend Condal be picked to write the series.
House of the Dragon presents a new era for HBO and Game of Thrones fandom as we turn the clocks back by nearly 200 years before Ned Stark rode south for King’s Landing. It’s a time of epic splendor and decadence, and as Condal teased to us, a final calm breath in Targaryen majesty before the bloodiest civil war in Westeros’ history. But while speaking with the writer, we couldn’t help but wonder if the fan reaction to the Game of Thrones ending lingered over the now much larger writers’ room on House of the Dragon. What Condal had to say is in the exchange below.
We’re all aware there was a very vocal online reaction to the end of Game of Thrones. Did that affect at all how you thought about going into this series?
Ryan Condal: I mean, any show that can attract a massive audience like that I’m deeply envious of, having come off of my previous show, which very few people watched if at all. It was always a struggle to just find an audience. So I think whenever you have a massive audience like that, you’re always going to have a vocal fanbase that will be very vocal about the things they like and they don’t like.
I think what the final season of Game of Thrones teaches us is that that was the biggest audience in television history, and honestly it’s a fan audience. It’s a Comic-Con audience. And they’re very vocal online and they have a lot of things to say. For me, that [reaction] is the mark of a very successful show that ran for 10 years, and we are very lucky and fortunate to be in its shadow, and I think we owe that show a whole ton of due gratitude for putting us where we are. I’m not making House of the Dragon if David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] didn’t have great success making Game of Thrones.
So honestly, I think my tack and direction on this show is simply about making something great that the fans will like. I’m trying to make the show that I would like to see as a fan of George’s books and I hope everybody likes it, but I also understand that with the massive audience that’s hopefully coming this way, there is going to be people of all spectrums that feel all different ways about the show, and that’s just part of the responsibility that you take on as the showrunner.
Do you think the world that the original show was made in is very different from the world you’ve made this show in?
Yeah, we didn’t have TikTok. [Laughs] I mean, I joke, but I think that’s the biggest point. Social media simply did not really exist, certainly at the level that it does now, but in the way that we understand social media now did not exist in 2011. The internet was certainly around for many years at that point, but just the level of connectivity that people have now versus then, and the fact that really everybody is on the internet… The internet used to be the nerds’ tool. If you knew what you were doing, you could go find a message board about whatever interest you had, and that’s not the case anymore. Now it’s really anybody with a phone can find a Reddit forum.
So I think that’s increased fan engagement. I don’t know whether it’s been all for the best, honestly. I nostalgically look back to a simpler time where the wall between the entertainment and the audience was a little thicker, and it was harder to find out all the little details about how something was made and to see all the magic tricks as they were done. I think there’s a lot less of that now. There’s a lot less magic and specialness and uniqueness in filmed entertainment, just because everybody has so much access to all this information all the time.
… And I think 2011 was a simpler time in the sense that if you were watching Game of Thrones, you had to gather at nine o’clock at night on Sunday and sit down with your friends and family, and watch the show. And I’m just aware now that that is not how people are going to take in this show. It’s a much more on-demand world that we’re living in.
Does that influence you and your co-writers at all, or do you just try and shut all that out?
I don’t think so. I mean, our job is to really just tell a great story and produce it well, and then hope that we find the fans. I mean, I think the advantage that we have, again thanks to David and Dan, is we have this huge, built-in audience who’s already interested in this property and material, whereas they had to win over people. In 2011, everybody was asking, what’s a Game of Thrones? Now, it’s a household term. Everybody knows what it is. So, I think for me, it’s really just trying to actually block all that out, write a great story, produce a great show, put it on, and then hope that we’re doing good service to that very vocal, very passionate audience that’s waiting to see the show.